Total Rating: 
**1/2
Previews: 
August 3, 2017
Images: 
Opened: 
August 24, 2017
Ended: 
October 29, 2017
Country: 
USA
State: 
New York
City: 
New York
Company/Producers: 
Manhattan Theater Club, Gorgeous Entertainment Inc, The John Gore Organization, James L. Nederlander, The Shubert Organization, Kumiko Yoshi
Theater Type: 
Broadway
Theater: 
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
Theater Address: 
261 West 47 Street
Phone: 
212-239-6200
Website: 
manhattantheatreclub.com
Running Time: 
2 hrs, 30 min
Genre: 
Musical Revue
Director: 
Harold Prince & Susan Stroman
Choreographer: 
Susan Stroman
Review: 

One might think that after winning a record 21 Tonys for producing or directing (and sometimes both at the same time) many of Broadway’s most popular and critically acclaimed musicals like West Side Story (1957), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1966), Company (1970), Follies (1971), Sweeney Todd (1979), Evita (1979), and The Phantom of the Opera (1986), the latter still up and running after 30 years – that the return of Hal Prince’s to The Great White Way with his latest venture, Prince of Broadway, a compendium of songs from his greatest hits, would have been a shoo in.

Not so! With making money as the bottom line coupled with a proven lack of box office heat for retrospectives for composers, directors, and choreographers – both Sondheim on Sondheim (2010) and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the 1989 Tony winner for best musical, were money-losing ventures. Would-be producers, even those who worked with Prince over the years and profited well from the connection, were not running to the front of the line with oodles greenbacks. In fact, there was no line per se. It appears that 13 million dollars for Prince of Broadway, as two sets of producers said before they quit, was too big a nut for them to crack. Especially problematic was the excessive set changes involved – one for each play represented – which would make traveling the musical to other cities where much of a Broadway production’s money is made, a virtual nightmare. (To shed light on rising costs in general: when Follies opened on Broadway in 1971 it was the most expensive musical ever done. The cost was $800.000.)

Adding to this mix are the Broadway audiences who have to shell out the big bucks. They love musicals and especially love big name star-turns like Bette Midler. Her advance sales for Hello, Dolly! reached the mega millions, some 40 mil to be exact. And let’s face it, memories are short, and Prince has been actively away from the Broadway scene for ten years (his major hits, other than Phantom, were during the 60s and 70s). And his last Broadway directorial project, produced as a limited run by the Manhattan Theater Club at the Biltmore Theater in 2007, was Alfred Uhry’s LoveMusik – the name Hal Prince, if known at all by the younger set, has been relegated to the bin of yesteryear. What they want now is hot, happening, sexy, and often on the loud side.

But fret not; a number of Japan-based producers have come to the rescue of the 89-year-old Prince and are currently housing his Prince of Broadway at The Samuel J. Friedman Theater. This 2 ½ hour musical with nine award-winning actors performing hand-picked by Prince numbers from seventeen of his favorite musicals opened on August 24, 2017. A limited run, it closes October 29.

Well-honed actors aside, Prince of Broadway is saturated with top-of-the-line technical talent, from his co-director and choreographer Susan Stroman, to Jason Robert Brown’s, new songs, arrangements, orchestrations, and music supervision; Beowulf Boritt’s scenic and production design, William Ivey Long’s costumes, and Howell Binkley’s lighting, all multiple Tony winners giving their all. Unfortunately, the weak link of the evening, which overshadows everything good, is the musical’s run-of-the-mill book by David Thompson which gives little insight, if any, into Prince’s craft or vision, or for that matter his personal life. I mean, where was his wife of 55 years, or, for that matter, was his two children?

What we do get in the way of story, dropped in between the musical’s 35 songs, are a series of dinky biographical snippets, a virtual laundry list of “Prince did that and then he did this” delivered by cast members playing surrogate to The Great Man himself. To make sure that the audience gets comfortable with this conceit, all of the mostly black-and-white-costumed actors, adopting Prince’s well-known signature, are made to wear a pair of glasses perched atop their heads while dispensing Thompson’s tidbits.

After a less-than-exciting overture, and a barrage of flashing titles of trumpeting Prince most famous productions, the action begins with actor Brandon Uranowitz approaching the lip of the stage. Facing the audience, he boldly announces, “My name is Hal Prince. I’ve been directing on Broadway for seven decades.”

Though the overture offered a predictable sampling of iconic songs, a greatest hits trailer, it did wake me up. It even brought on some eye-welling tears, as memories of the iconic actors who starred in the original Broadway musicals, and in some cases its filmed versions, came flooding back in spades, alas bringing in their wake my younger years.

First to enliven my senses was the late great Elaine Stritch singing “Here’s To The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, followed by another late great, Glynis Johns singing “Send In The Clowns” from A Little Night Music, and, of course, Angela Lansbury, now 91, singing just about anything from Sweeney Todd. And then the many wonderful songs of Follies: “Could I Leave You?”, “Being Alive,” “Losing My Mind,” and “I’m Still Here,” came sauntering by.

As you probably gathered by now, the second star of the Prince of Broadway, in the number of productions featured in this musical alone, is the 87-year-old Stephen Sondheim, Prince’s longest-lasting collaborator. For the record, Prince’s favorite musical, according to a recent interview he gave, is Sondheim’s Follies.

As happens so often in our own history, we find ourselves confronting the same details again and again – in the case of theater I am thinking of theatrical revivals in general, and specifically the resurrected songs and scenes in Prince of Broadway – and wondering if these shards of old can still yield any life once they have reached the age of nostalgia. For the most part, the answer is no. For as talented as the actors are, and as hard as they try, most are unable to erase, overcome, or even temporarily stall my memory of the actors who originally sang these same iconic songs, and who, in many cases, helped make both song and the play from which they were taken, famous.

Yes, history has a way of favoring those that get there first. For those with a scientific bent, look at it this way. The first bounce of the ball is usually the highest. Point of fact is that I have never seen a revival, musical, or for that matter a drama, no matter how brilliant, better than the original. In all fairness, part of this failure of the Prince of Broadway actors to fully impress, or for that matter, make the songs they sing come alive, is that every stand-alone number in the show comes out of context. Kidnapped from its own history, with nothing to connect these fast-moving songs and scenes to overall plot, with no past or future to clutch onto, we get a smorgasbord of song and scene with little staying power rather than a full and deeply satisfying meal.

On the upside, two incandescent performers on the night that I saw Prince of Broadway did manage to run away with the show. While most of the musical numbers have faded from memory, Tony Yazbeck’s breathtaking song and dance for “The Right Girl” from (Follies) – is still alive and kicking inside my head. And I expect it to stay there a long time. In a dazzling tour de force that quickened my heart, Yazbeck was able to emotionally tell a whole story of love and loss. Beautifully choreographed by Susan Stroman, Yazbeck’s exhilarating star turn was the longest number in the show. Every time I thought “The Right Girl” was coming to an end. it was born again as Yazbeck hit us with a renewed fusillade of exploding energy. Yes, the audience went crazy, first at his athletically challenging performance, and again at his curtain bow.

Equally compelling and as enthusiastically received was Karen Ziemba singing a heartbreaking rendition of “So What?” from Cabaret. It is a sad song of resignation that goes right to your heart. Playing Fraulein Schneider and looking a lot older than she really is thanks to Paul Huntley (hair and wig design), Angelina Avallone (make-up design), and William Ivy Long’s costuming, Ziemba was physically unrecognizable. I actually had to consult the program to see who this actress was. Now that is acting.

Honorable Mentions: I would be remiss not mentioning the names of some of the other talented actors who supplied the best side dishes to Yazbeck and Ziemba’s main-meal star turns. Standing out were Janet Ducal’s renditions of “Buenos Aires” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita, and Emily Skinner, in fine trifecta form, singing “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, and “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company.

Surprisingly unpleasant was Chuck Cooper’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat. Cooper appeared to lack the presence, the voice, and the gravitas needed to pull off the song. Equally subpar was Cooper’s rendition of “If I were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof. Here, Cooper lacking the both the presence and comedic timing of both Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi, obviously going for laughs, supplied a lot more humor and bodily mugging than the role required.

Equally off putting (perhaps condescending is a more accurate word) was the musical’s cheesy Hallmark, self-help ending. Trying to give an uplifting message to all that we just saw – no doubt after running out of ideas – the full cast assembled to sing “Do the Work,” an original song with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Here the audience was counseled, with a nod to Prince’s own work ethic, to “Do the work. Get it done. When you’re finished, you start the next one. Will it last? Will it count? Time will tell. Fill the space. Do the work, pal, And do it well.” How this signoff passed the muster of both Prince and Stroman is beyond me.

Cast: 
Chuck Cooper, Janet Dacal, Bryonha Marie Parham, Emily Skinner, Brandon Uranowitz, Kaley Ann Voorhees, Michael Xavier, Tony Yazbeck and Karen Ziemba
Technical: 
Set and Projections: Beowulf Boritt: Costumes: William Ivy Long, Lighting: Howell Binkley: Sound: Jon Weston,
Critic: 
Edward Rubin
Date Reviewed: 
September 2017